I confess I bear a not-insignificant amount of resistant to ‘single shot’ gimmicks. The Best Picture win for Birdman a few years ago reinforced that this kind of showmanship attracts an aura of prestige, deserved or otherwise. 1917 is the latest to assume this approach and reap the rewards; this ‘single shot’ World War I war film picked up Golden Globes for Best Drama Motion Picture and Best Director, making it a firm favourite heading into the Oscars. (It’s worth clarifying that this unbroken shot is a series of scenes stitched together, much like Rope back in 1948.)
Full credit to director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins: 1917 is an impressive technical achievement. Too often the single shot conceit – perfect for fostering mounting tension and a sense of immediacy – introduces more obstacles than opportunities. Reviewing The Revenant – which unnecessarily featured a number of long shots – Jaymes Durante observed that ‘We have to wait for Lubezki to revolve around conversations where a simple shot-reverse shot structure would have easily sufficed.’ There’s a reason that cinematic grammar has endured over more than a century; it’s just a better evocation of the way we perceive life than unbroken shots.
Refreshingly, Mendes has storyboarded and structured his film to – for the most part – avoid these pitfalls. The story is simple: a pair of Allied soldiers (Dean-Charles Chapman’s Lance Corporal Blake and George MacKay’s Lance Corporal Schofield) must cut through enemy territory to deliver an important message that will call off a doomed charge and save the lives of over a thousand men. It’s a familiar set-up for contemporary war films; much like Saving Private Ryan and Hacksaw Ridge, the filmmakers want us to cheer for our heroes saving lives rather than taking them. Because we’re primarily following two characters, Deakins and Mendes are able to frame them both on screen and avoid having to swing the camera from person to person to simulate shot-reverse shot.
It helps that the films technical achievements are paired with genuine artistry. Deakins’ work is distinguished by his thoughtful and grandiose plays of light, and that’s on full display here: especially in a captivating night-time scene illuminated intermittently by the orange light of artillery and flares sailing past above. You can see why the film has attracted the attention of awards bodies like the Hollywood Foreign Press, filled as it is with such breathtaking, memorable moments.
Here’s the problem: all these magnificent moments, these demonstrations of formal prowess are in service of a very generic storyline. If you’ve seen a handful of war films before, you won’t be surprised by the events that occur here. From the abandoned German trenches to Schofield’s encounter with a Frenchwoman hiding out in a ruined town, everything unrolls as you’d expect. To a degree, that’s understandable; 1917’s innovations are found in its filming, not its storytelling. But it undermines all the intended moments of power or poetry when they feel like a shadow of a story you’ve experienced a dozen times before.
All of which, I suspect, is why 1917 is fast firming as an awards season favourite. This is far from a bad film – it’s quite a good one, in fact! – but it offers something familiar in an obviously skilful package, which is easy to appreciate without feeling at all challenged. There’re glimpses of something greater lurking in the film’s climax, which acknowledges that the moments of heroism showcased here are ultimately smothered by the density of injustice found at wartime. It pales in comparison to the last Mendes/Deakins war film (Jarhead), however. These elements feel like fragmentary lipservice; the real focus here is the undeniably impressive camerawork, which would have been so much more powerful in service of a more memorable story.